Archive for August, 2013

Peace on the Inside–Introducing Peace Education in a Pennsyvannia Jail


Guest-blogger Chip Presendofer provides us with a unique perspective on the steps he and a dedicated group of individuals have taken to launch a Peace Education Program in Berks County Jail, Pennsylvania. Volunteers like Chip and his team are introducing The Peace Education Program in prisons, colleges, universities, civic groups, hospices, and other institutions around the world. Peace Education (PEP) and Food for People (FFP) are two humanitarian aid programs developed by the Prem Rawat Foundation (TPRF).

PEP Team (Not All Members Pictured)

PEP Team (Not All Members Pictured)

In January of 2013, I reviewed the latest Peace Education Program curriculum  with three other people at a friend’s house. Ever since I first heard about the Peace Education Program,  I’ve been motivated to contact local prisons, but all my early attempts met with rejection. The curriculum renewed my enthusiasm, and seeing a video about the Peace Education Program in prisons titled “Peace on the Inside” last summer made me feel we had a real story to tell. I think the idea of bringing a message of hope to people who have made some poor choices in their lives is worth the effort.

Feedback from Dominquez State Jail in San Antonio confirms my feeling. We began by hatching an action plan. Two team members wrote an introductory letter and compiled a list of potential recipients who we felt would be able to help us get the Peace Education Program information in the right hands. We sent about ten letters and got a nibble in neighboring Berks County.

On Thursday, February 21st, we met with an official who told us to follow-up with a specific commissioner on the prison board. We persistently followed up with the commissioner, and on February 28th, 2013 we received a letter from the warden expressing interest in implementing the Peace Education Program in Berks County Jail.

Now what? We had to wait until prison management allocated staffing and space resources at the jail. In the meantime, there was paper work to complete for background checks and volunteer training. In April, the prison scheduled training for July 17th, so we were in a holding pattern.

At this point, it seemed like a good idea to bring together everyone who had an interest in PEP under the premise of reviewing the curriculum materials. The thought was that a team of volunteers would identify themselves over successive meetings, and that’s exactly what happened. Every Sunday for about six weeks we met, reviewed the PEP curriculum, and discussed all the information we could glean from everyone involved with PEP. A number of people in the United States, South Africa, and Canada were extremely helpful and forthcoming with information and advice. We were hearing about what volunteers had done, what not to do, what they had learned, and how rewarding it was to actually bring a message of peace and hope into a prison environment.

Five people attended the Volunteer Training at the jail in July. It became very real for us at that meeting. The list of things that could go wrong and the picture painted of the inmates was an eye-opener. As it turned out, the staff instructors were making us aware of what could happen in a worst-case scenario, but when we asked both of them if they would allow their sisters to volunteer, without hesitation they both said yes. This made us feel a little more comfortable, but there were still a lot of unknowns. We discussed our fears and concerns in our meeting and we all decided the risk was worth the effort. It was a real moment-of-truth that we shared and the experience solidified our resolve to keep moving forward.

Peace Education Classroom

Peace Education Classroom

On August 2nd, two PEP team members met with the volunteer coördinator at the jail to look at the classroom and confirm a start date on August 9th. The classroom we chose was large enough for twenty students. On Friday, August 9th, we held our first class. Seventeen inmates attended. After all the students arrived and took their seats, I briefly told them we were going to play a video to give them a sense of what was going to take place and then I would take attendance. All eyes seemed fixed on the screen at the beginning of the class. It was easy for the students to relate to the prison scenes and the inmate interviews kept their attention.

I took attendance by calling out everyone’s name and tried to make sure I pronounced the names correctly. Prior to putting in the first video, I thanked the students for coming and said that the information they were about to see was directed to them as human beings. I asked them to try to listen without comparing it to anything they had heard before. Then I pushed the button on the remote and the class was underway. The class proceeded smoothly, although it seemed the longer videos challenged some students’ attention spans. Experienced PEP volunteers had advised me that it would take a few classes for the energy in the room to jell and for people to feel comfortable enough to ask questions and expose their thoughts.

The inmates came from different cell blocks. Some knew each other (fist bumps) while others were not acquainted. In general, the inmates had no trouble finding seats and being in relatively close quarters. They were orderly, quiet, attentive and helpful. Perhaps in our next class, I’ll invite them to share a little of what they heard and hopefully get them a little more involved.

Before we knew it, the class was over. After replacing the tables and chairs to their original positions, all the inmates wound up standing in a circle around the perimeter of the room. The atmosphere was instantly more relaxed and one man asked whether a person without a conscience could find the peace within. I said those are two different things. Consciousness is being aware of your existence and conscience helps us distinguish between right and wrong. I said I didn’t think a person without a conscience would seek the peace within, but I didn’t really know. He thanked me for being honest with him, and then he said he was just trying to sound smart and not to pay him any mind. I said I was just trying to sound smart also, and that got a laugh from a few people. It was the first time during the class that it felt like we might have connected a little more on the personal level.

Inmate Housing Unit

Inmate Housing Unit

I received another important piece of advice from my fellow volunteers: It’s important to connect personally with inmates without getting too involved. That advice makes a lot of sense to me. The students don’t have to like us individually, but they should know we relate to them as human beings, not as prisoners. This is a fine line, but one that holds significant promise for us as facilitators. If we respect the inmates, there’s a good chance they’ll respect the volunteer team and feel comfortable enough to reveal their thoughts in class. I don’t feel it’s my place to draw the students out, but I do feel like I need to create an environment that will allow them to open up if they wish.

The ability to walk out of the prison made me realize how fortunate I am and what a privilege it is to be able to make my own decisions about my day. Driving home, someone asked me how I felt, and I answered, “Relieved and curious.” Relieved we had broken the ice and now had an idea what we needed to do for next week and curious to see who will return.

With only one class behind us, we have many, many more to go. This is a marathon, not a sprint, and one lit candle can light hundreds of others. We’re on our way, and for that I’m thankful. Looking back, it took a lot of effort to get the program started, but the journey has just begun and the bulk of the effort is still in front of us.

Berks County Jail

Berks County Jail

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Can We Make Fewer Babies?


All this talk about overpopulation is finally beginning to hit home. Lately, it seems like almost everywhere I go, hordes of people come crawling out of the woodwork.

It’s really becoming annoying. Take, for example, a trip to the mall. You have to use a slide rule to calculate the ideal time to go, to avoid peak hour pedestrian traffic trampling you underfoot.

At the rate the world population is growing, many of us will have to consider living on another planet in some distant galaxy.  It won’t be long before scientists discover a suitable planet to colonize and they build a faster-than-light-speed spacecraft to take us there. I’m going to make sure my retirement account is healthy enough to buy a one-way ticket for me and my family to make the journey.

Starting over, however, is not going to be easy.  There won’t be any NFL or NBA games to watch, golf to play, books to read, or computer games to play—save the ones we take with us.  My wife and daughter will miss Lifetime, Housewives, nail salons, and shopping malls, to mention only a few life staples, before civilization reasserts itself.

How did we get ourselves into this situation? According to an actuarial study commissioned by the US Social Security Service, life expectancy has increased by 28 years for men and 26 years for women from 1900 to 2001. According to the same study, this is due to several factors:

• Access to primary medical care for the general population

• Improved healthcare provided to mothers and babies

• Availability of immunizations

• Improvements in motor vehicle safety

Clean water supply and waste removal

• Safer and more nutritious foods

• Rapid rate of growth in the general standard of living

I’d like to add one more item to this list: Thanks to medical science, people are living longer. In my humble opinion, some people are living longer than they should. Please allow me to explain.

As I write this, I’m sitting in a cancer center waiting for a vitamin B-12 shot and thanking God I don’t have cancer. I see people shuffle in, many in their eighties and nineties, supported by walkers and canes, wearing bandages, heads bent, half asleep. You have to feel sorry for these people while praying you don’t wind up like them.

Certainly, cancer has many causes, but one of them is simply the aging process. We reach a point where our immune system grows too feeble to protect us. At this point, the party is over. We become like AIDS patients before the curative cocktail, with nothing to look forward to but one disease after another.

Yet people hang on, thanks to the wonders of medical science, hoping life will one day be worth living again. Maybe that day will come when full-body transplants become available. If this doesn’t happen in the next ten or twenty years, I hope I will have the wisdom to know when it’s time to gracefully exit stage right (or left.) To put it another way, to have the courtesy to make room for someone else and stop contributing to escalating healthcare costs.

In the meantime, I’ll go on meditating, exercising and pursuing the interests that make me feel happy-from-the-heart. And for the sake of EVERYONE’S quality of life, can we PLEASE be a little more conscious by making fewer babies?

Planet Colonization

Planet Colonization

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Voir Dire and the Hydrogen Bomb


Nobody likes it. I am no exception. We’re talking about jury duty, of course. I kept trying to forget the impending date, but something kept reminding me, like, the Jury Summons itself sitting in a corner of the bedroom on my desk. Despite the negative anticipation and a six a.m. alarm, I wound up having a pretty good time on my day in court—believe it or not.

For starters, the clerk called out my number and name among the first panel of prospective jurors summoned that morning. I went directly upstairs to await the process of Jury selection instead of sitting in an over-crowded room of eight hundred people coughing, burping, farting, and talking on their cell phones.

Being selected randomly by the computer for the first panel of jurors equates to winning the lottery…well, maybe the scratch off lottery. I sat in a waiting room outside the courtroom on the fifth floor with seventeen other fortunate souls awaiting Voir Dire (to speak the truth) also known as jury selection. The bailiff ushered us into the courtroom where six attorneys (three for each side) and the judge awaited us.  Everyone except the judge stood during our entrance out of respect for the judicial system and our suffering…whoops, I mean our service.

I feel compelled to interject a few words about the judge here. She belied all of my preconceived notions about judges, the product mostly of television programs. She showed uncommon courtesy, sympathy and compassion for the jurors, and a kindness as well as fairness towards the attorneys.

The judge read a brief overview of the case to us. It involved a former police officer who was suing the girl who stabbed him while on duty and Wal-mart where the crime occurred.

Now the process of Voir Dire began in earnest with the lead attorney for the plaintiff asking us a series of questions. Here are some of the highlights. When asked if anyone on the panel had a problem with personal injury lawsuits, two gentlemen and one woman offered that they believed more than fifty percent of PI lawsuits were frivolous.  Another woman stated that she, as a Christian person, had a problem with all lawsuits, professing that people should not sue one another.

When asked about our opinions about lawyers in general, one gentleman said, “I hate lawyers. My ex-wife and her scheming attorney sentenced me to a lifetime of alimony payments.”

It seems to me the only explanation that people make statements and express views such as these is for the express purpose of being relieved of the burden of jury duty.

After a lunch break, the lead defense attorney approached us for questioning. He began by asking, “Does anyone on the panel bake.” Three women raised their hands. The Plaintiff’s attorney immediately objected. “We don’t have any cakes or baking in this case.”

The Judge allowed the defense some leeway when the defense attorney promised to, “tie in” the question. He made the point that baked goods must have a specific number of ingredients included for a successful result. Failure to include one or more ingredients will doom the baking project. In a similar fashion, the plaintiff’s attorneys were duty-bound to prove all the elements required by law for  the jury to award damages.

It dawned upon me that attorneys begin indoctrinating the jury even before the formal proceedings begin. You learn something new every day.

The defense attorney then asked us if anyone had a bad customer experience at Wal-mart. One gentleman raised his hand. Under repeated questioning, he admitted a manager resolved the matter to his satisfaction. ice-age-ahead-iaa.ca

Then the attorney dropped, what turned out for me, the hydrogen bomb. He asked if anyone on the panel “had a problem with Wal-mart in general.” In that moment, I realized I did—a big problem.

I flashed back six months to a PBS Frontline documentary titled, “Is Wal-mart Good for America.”  I found it enlightening and a bit shocking.

I proceeded to tell the attorney that I did have a problem with Wal-mart. He said he would question me in private about it. Obviously, he didn’t want my opinion to contaminate the other panelists.

After the defense attorney finished his questions, I expressed my views with the other jury members outside the room. I said I had learned from a PBS documentary that Wal-mart is a major contributing factor to the erosion of the manufacturing base in this country and our widening negative balance of trade, with more products imported than exported.

Wal-mart buys most of its products from China. Sam Walton, the founder of the company, had a firm policy of buying American. Unfortunately, Sam Walton, along with the rest of the world, has passed on.

I also learned that Wal-mart underpays its employees, despite making thirteen billion in profits in 2012. In addition, the company indirectly supports the policy of many foreign manufacturers paying their employees what amounts to slave wages to produce at prices low enough to satisfy Wal-mart.

Wal-mart also practices deceptive advertising. They promote low prices on loss leader items while many other items in the store match the prices of other major competitors. Wal-mart makes more profit on these items than their competitors due to their massive buying power, but the savings are not passed on to the consumer.

I concluded my remarks by saying in my opinion Wal-mart does not serve the public interest. The company does not contribute one iota to the standard of living of anyone in this country. Instead, Wal-mart detracts from our quality of life by making it harder to find a good-paying job or to own and operate an independent business, small or large. I embellished these remarks with one final stroke of the sword: “Wal-mart is a cancer growing steadily in developed and developing countries worldwide.”

The defense attorney just stood there behind his lectern in disbelief.

In trying to discern my motives for this outburst, I have yet to come up with a solid answer. Should I commend myself for telling the truth, or did I simply find a creative way to weasel out of jury duty? I honestly don’t know.

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